At 97, Evelyn Birkby spends most of her days remembering. Birkby lives in Sidney, Iowa, near the Loess Hills, where ancient winds swept glacier-crushed soil into bluffs that stretch out to Missouri. Sidney is home to Iowa’s oldest rodeo and to Penn Drug, the oldest family-owned drug store around, which serves lunches of sandwiches and milkshakes at small tables that crowd the area in front of the hair products, right across from the greeting cards and the display of wine from nearby Tabor. There is only one grocery store now, but Birkby can remember when there were three and they delivered. Remembering is important for Birkby, because it reminds her where we began — of the things that root us to place and people. Too many people forget.
Birkby lives in a small house filled with pictures of her three sons as moon-faced toddlers. I visited to talk to her, for a book I’m writing, about how churches in the heartland have changed, but she tells me that many things have stayed the same — nationalism, fear, hunger, and anger.
In her living room, small glass pine trees fill shelves near wooden replicas of old-timey schoolhouses and a miniature High Flyer sled. There are hand-painted glass goblets clustered above, mugs of pens, piles of neatly folded newspapers, a bowl of eye drops: the fussy tchotchkes of memories and age. Birkby sits like a queen in a recliner, her lap covered with a maroon fleece blanket, a butterfly scarf pinned around her shoulders like a cape.
Birkby recently completed a memoir about the year 1935. She was 17 then and had just moved to Sidney with her family. Her father was a Methodist circuit minister, with four different congregations. America was locked in the Great Depression. “People were hungry and angry then too,” she says. “They are hungry and angry now.” Maybe, she offers, people have always been hungry and angry.
For 67 years, Birkby has written a weekly column for the Valley News in Shenandoah, Iowa, and hosted a call-in radio show called Up a Country Lane. She doesn’t like to get political in the column or on air, because she likes to stay positive. “Positivity helps you live a long time,” she says. “It worked for me.”
Birkby listened to the radio during the Depression; later she’d remember how the positive words encouraged her. When she got her own show, in 1950, she made sure she was never critical or unkind. “All those women stuck out on their farms with their children, I talked to them through the radio.” The thing they needed then was just to know they weren’t alone. People still need to know that, just in a different way. Kindness, she believes, is something America has forgotten. But Birkby remembers.
While writing her memoir, Birkby noticed a number of similarities between 1935 and 2017. Americans needed jobs then, too; 1935 was the year President Roosevelt signed the WPA into law and established Social Security. It was also the year of the Dust Bowl. Birkby remembers hobos, those malnourished boys, stopping by her parents’ house. Her mother believed in God and kindness, so she never closed her door on anyone. Birkby believes the house was marked. “But we didn’t mind. We were all hungry then.”
Americans were also wary of growing tensions abroad. In 1935 Congress passed the Neutrality Act, which established a policy of non-intervention that would obtain until 1941. “We were also scared of immigrants then,” Birkby says. “Although maybe not so much, because we all remembered our families being immigrants.”
Birkby didn’t vote for the current president, whose name she never uses. But she’s begged explanations from friends for how the state she believes is the heart of America could have turned so cold. “They say they are angry, but I don’t know why.” I ask her if it’s because it’s hard to live out here. Small businesses are closing. Towns that used to have their own schools and churches are now boarded up. People have to work more and drive more.
Birkby twists her mouth into a line of disapproval. As someone who remembers the Dust Bowl, she doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for the complaints of middle America. She explains that she doesn’t believe in the Devil, she believes in God and choices. Whatever hardship people have, Birkby believes, is born of choices. But there’s also the choice to be positive and see the good in people. The choice to help and be part of a community. “We just need to make better choices,” she says. We means America.
Birkby served on two committees for Robert Ray, Iowa’s Republican governor from 1969 to 1983. “He let in so many immigrants and always tried to be kind and helpful,” she remembers. Even though she stopped calling herself a Republican when Nixon ruined it for her, Birkby believes America could use some more Iowans like Ray.
Birkby also remembers the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Sidney. Established by Roosevelt, the CCC collected teams of out-of-work men to build roads and facilities for the local state park. “Then we put people to work using new ideas, not fear.” It’s a major difference she sees between the world today and 1935.
That also happens to have been the year she met Robert, her husband of seventy years. They met in high school and married ten years later. There’s one way 2017 is different: Robert died last fall. This is Evelyn’s first year since 1935 without him.
It’s been hard. The difference in her life is stark. But she stays busy writing, teaching her nurses to make the perfect orange-Jell-O salad with bananas on top, and remembering.
When I tell her to have a good day, she waves and shouts out, “Every day is a good day if you choose to make it one.”